The QAnon playbook: Republicans make school board meetings the new battleground
Jake Angeli, second from right, is a prominent supporter of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. © Win McNamee, AFP

In the Donald Trump era, GOP politics are mainly about trolling. So it's no surprise that Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel manifested this week as an in-flesh version of an egg avatar tweeting memes about DEMON-crats and the glories of horse paste. The unlucky recipients of Mandel's trolling were members of a school board in a suburb of Cincinnati, where Mandel showed up to grandstand despite not having children in the district. His complaints were incoherent — a muddled mix of whining about mask mandates, screeching that "children should not be forced to learn about to pick a gender," and something about the district's book-keeping practices — but of course, actually making sense was not the point. The point was to get attention by being a jerk.

So Mandel walked himself through the standard troll protocol: Escalate obnoxious behavior until the target is forced to block you, or in this case, kick you out. Then sanctimoniously declare yourself a victim to your own followers, martyred by the censorious liberals who can't handle the truth bombs you were supposedly dropping.

Mandel followed this script faithfully. He declared on Twitter — freely and without a hint of self-awareness — that his "free speech" was being suppressed. He was just there to "defend moms and dads," he sanctimoniously insisted, before accusing the school board of "using kids as pawns in a political game."

As with most accusations leveled by right-wingers, this was really a confession.

The Ohio school board — like every other school board affected by the coordinated assault by unhinged right-wingers screaming about mask mandates and "critical race theory" — is just trying to navigate the difficult problem of educating children during a pandemic. It's Republicans who are using kids as political pawns, staging these increasingly ridiculous confrontations at school boards. It's nothing more than political theater to motivate the GOP base for the 2022 midterms.

They learned these tactics from the QAnon cult.

QAnon is, at its heart, a fascist movement dedicated to ending American democracy and, like many fascist movements, regards their leader, Donald Trump, as a god-like figure. But coming at people straight with that pitch is a tough sell. So, instead, the QAnon pitch is about "the children." They lure people in with lurid conspiracy theories about a worldwide pedophile cult, the sort of thing that, if it were true, really would be a cause to take action. Once in, the lies about "saving the children" serve as a justification, both to outsiders and to silence doubts in the followers. How can you call them fascists when all they want to do is "save the children?"

The beauty of using "the children" as a cover story is that it is blanket permission to be a monster. Any level of harassment or even violence can be justified, as long as protecting the innocence of children is invoked. (See: The attempted overthrow of American democracy by QAnon fanatics.) No wonder Republican operators have been inspired to take a page directly out of the QAnon playbook to manufacture this nationwide assault on school boards. Using imaginary threats to children as a recruitment-and-rationalization strategy works.

Republicans' cleaned up the conspiracy theory a little, as accusing Tom Hanks of pedophilia is a tough one to trick mainstream journalists into repeating. So the mainstream GOP version of the conspiracy theory is now "critical race theory" and something about how mask mandates are a sinister effort to wrest away parental authority, instead of a common sense health regulation. But the basic gist is the same: Pretend to believe that evil liberals want to hurt children, and use that as a permission slip to act on every antisocial impulse.

To be certain, Republican organizers have long understood that their base is composed of wannabe trolls just aching for an excuse to freak out in public. This understanding was harnessed in the early years of Barack Obama's presidency to protest his economic stimulus and in the GOP effort to prevent the Affordable Care Act from passing. The "Tea Party" started off as a total Astroturf affair, funded by the Koch brothers and organized by GOP operatives, built to look like a "grassroots" uprising of conservatives supposedly irate at social spending programs. But it tapped into a very real longing among everyday Republican voters to have racist temper tantrums in public. They just needed a cover story, and the Koch brothers gave it to them. Pop on a tricorner hat, drop the "without representation" part of the American revolutionary complaint about taxation, and now it's "patriotic" to scream barely coded racist vitriol at the local town hall meeting. The current assault on school boards follows the same formula.

"The sudden interest in school boards is not an organic grassroots movement of angry parents," but "an effort orchestrated by seasoned right-wing political operatives," Judd Legum at Popular Info writes, in a piece that identifies both the organizers, drawn heavily from the GOP consultant class and their GOP-linked funders. These people are then laundered into "concerned parents" — with no mention of their political affiliations — on Fox News. The organizing is deliberately constructed to look amateurish, as if this were just local parents having authentic reactions to local politics, instead of a well-financed national movement to construct a mass hysteria, aimed solely at the goal of electing Republicans.

The strategy works very well, because, as GOP operatives understand the scream-at-waiters-and-flight-attendant energy of America's Kens and Karens. Add to the mix the QAnon-esque fake concern for "the children," and that anti-social energy becomes explosive, as school board members across the country are finding out to their dismay.

No one should be fooled. Neither the organizers behind this Astroturf effort nor the ordinary Republican voters caught up in the excitement care one whit about American children. If they did, they sure wouldn't want them spreading COVID-19 in schools. In a broader sense, people who actually care about children want to fight climate change, want families to have access to affordable and quality child care, and want children born into homes where they are wanted and welcome — all values Democrats stand for (well, mostly) and Republicans universally oppose. Children are not harmed by learning racism is bad or by being protected from the novel coronavirus. But if these QAnon-style tactics work to elect Republicans in 2022, American children's futures are in very real peril indeed.